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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

12 MARCH, 2014

Show Your Work: Austin Kleon on the Art of Getting Noticed

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How to balance the contagiousness of raw enthusiasm with the humility of knowing we’re all in this together.

In 2012, artist Austin Kleon gave us Steal Like an Artist, a modern manifesto for combinatorial creativity that went on to become one of the best art books that year. He now returns with Show Your Work! (public library) — “a book for people who hate the very idea of self-promotion,” in which Kleon addresses with equal parts humility, honesty, and humor one of the quintessential questions of the creative life: How do you get “discovered”? In some ways, the book is the mirror-image of Kleon’s debut — rather than encouraging you to “steal” from others, meaning be influenced by them, it offers a blueprint to making your work influential enough to be theft-worthy. Complementing the advice is Kleon’s own artwork — his signature “newspaper blackout” poems — as a sort of meta-case for sharing as a modern art that requires courage, commitment, and creative integrity.

Kleon begins by framing the importance of sharing as social currency:

Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine. These people aren’t schmoozing at cocktail parties; they’re too busy for that. They’re cranking away in their studios, their laboratories, or their cubicles, but instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding their work, they’re open about what they’re working on, and they’re consistently posting bits and pieces of their work, their ideas, and what they’re learning online. Instead of wasting their time “networking,” they’re taking advantage of the network. By generously sharing their ideas and their knowledge, they often gain an audience that they can then leverage when they need it — for fellowship, feedback, or patronage.

He later considers the seemingly obvious but underappreciated heart of sharing — something most obviously and gruesomely assailed by trolls and haters, but also routinely forgotten amidst our more subtle everyday negligence — and writes:

The act of sharing is one of generosity — you’re putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or entertaining to someone on the other side of the screen.

One of the myths antithetical to this networked generosity, Kleon points out, is that of the lone genius — a creator propelled by divine inspiration along a path of solitary work. But while this notion might be deeply engrained in our cultural mythology of genius, it is not only false but also toxic to the creative spirit, to the kinship of creativity that Robert Henri so memorably extolled. Kleon writes:

If you believe in the lone genius myth, creativity is an antisocial act, performed by only a few great figures — mostly dead men with names like Mozart, Einstein, or Picasso. The rest of us are left to stand around and gawk in awe at their achievements.

Instead, he borrows Brian Eno’s term “scenius” as a healthier alternative in conceiving of creativity:

Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals — artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers — who make up an “ecology of talent.”

[…]

Being a valuable part of a scenius is not necessarily about how smart or talented you are, but about what you have to contribute—the ideas you share, the quality of the connections you make, and the conversations you start. If we forget about genius and think more about how we can nurture and contribute to a scenius, we can adjust our own expectations and the expectations of the worlds we want to accept us. We can stop asking what others can do for us, and start asking what we can do for others.

Indeed, this is what history’s greatest booms of innovation embody, from the cross-pollination at the heart of “the age of insight” in early-twentieth-century Vienna to the broader cultural history of how good ideas spread. But more than a way to explain history, “scenius” is one of the best models for making sense of the modern world — as Kleon keenly observes, the internet itself is “a bunch of sceniuses connected together, divorced from physical geography.” Finding yourself a “scenius” to belong to is an essential part of making sure your work takes root in culture.

Another of Kleon’s life-tested pointers focuses on embracing the status of amateur — not in the derogatory sense, but in the revolutionary spirit that propelled H.P. Lovecraft’s Amateur Press Association, the proto-model of blogging. Being an amateur harnesses the Zen notion of “beginner’s mind” — a state of openness to possibility that closes up as we get calcified in expertise. After all, Frank Lloyd Wright put it perfectly when he asserted that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.’” However, the gift of the amateur — or the “curious outsider,” a term I’ve used for myself — is not only an openness to uncertainty, but also a boundless enthusiasm with a sharp focus. Kleon writes:

Amateurs [are] just regular people who get obsessed by something and spend a ton of time thinking out loud about it… Raw enthusiasm is contagious.

The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown.

This intersection of the scenius and the amateur, Kleon argues, is a hotbed of creative power:

The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others. Find a scenius, pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note of what they’re not sharing. Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first. . . . Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.

This notion of doing what you love and sharing it also goes to the heart of a familiar quarterlife-crisis concern: finding your voice. Kleon offers the beautifully simple, if uncomfortable, answer:

The only way to find your voice is to use it. It’s hardwired, built into you. Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.

One of Kleon’s more unusual creative-centering strategies has to do with letting death put life in perspective — every morning, he begins his day by reading the obituaries in the paper. It might seem like an odd habit, but it’s actually a remarkable tool for clarifying one’s priorities. Citing Maira Kalman’s memorable observation that “the sum of every obituary is how heroic people are, and how noble,” Kleon writes:

Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards. Reading them is a way for me to think about death while also keeping it at arm’s length. Obituaries aren’t really about death; they’re about life. . . . Reading about people who are dead now and did things with their lives makes me want to get up and do something decent with mine. Thinking about death every morning makes me want to live.

In another section, Kleon advises to send a “daily dispatch” to your community, a practice that counters the equally toxic myth of the overnight success — something I feel very strongly about myself — and instead turns the invisible process of your becoming, as a person and an artist, into something people can see. Kleon writes:

Overnight success is a myth. Dig into almost every overnight success story and you’ll find about a decade’s worth of hard work and perseverance. Building a substantial body of work takes a long time — a lifetime, really—but thankfully, you don’t need that time all in one big chunk. So forget about decades, forget about years, and forget about months. Focus on days.

[…]

A daily dispatch is even better than a résumé or a portfolio, because it shows what we’re working on right now. . . . A good daily dispatch is like getting all the DVD extras before a movie comes out — you get to watch deleted scenes and listen to director’s commentary while the movie is being made.

One way of knowing what to share is to understand the notion of “stock and flow” — an economic concept that Robin Sloan transformed into an apt metaphor for media. “Stock” refers to the timeless, evergreen stuff — things as interesting and meaningful today as they are in a year or even a decade. “Flow” is the reverse-chronology feed of short snippets of the present, things that “remind people you exist” — tweets, Instagram photos, and so forth. The key is to keep up your flow without letting it detract or distract from your stock, on which you continue working in the background. But the two aren’t diametrically opposed — with some pattern-recognition, bits of flow can coalesce into stock. Kleon writes:

Social media sites function a lot like public notebooks—they’re places where we think out loud, let other people think back at us, then hopefully think some more. But the thing about keeping notebooks is that you have to revisit them in order to make the most out of them. You have to flip back through old ideas to see what you’ve been thinking. Once you make sharing part of your daily routine, you’ll notice themes and trends emerging in what you share. You’ll find patterns in your flow.

When you detect these patterns, you can start gathering these bits and pieces and turn them into something bigger and more substantial. You can turn your flow into stock. For example, a lot of the ideas in this book started out as tweets, which then became blog posts, which then became book chapters. Small things, over time, can get big.

Indeed, this notion of fragmentary accumulation of big ideas is closely linked to one of the most important points Kleon makes, a throwback to his first book: Our minds are constantly assembling bits and pieces from the things we are exposed to, our interests and our influences, which we then combine into our own ideas about the world. But the two processes — collecting and creating — are intertwined. After all, as Amanda Palmer eloquently reminded us, “we can only connect the dots that we collect.” Kleon writes of the osmosis:

We all carry around the weird and wonderful things we’ve come across while doing our work and living our lives. These mental scrapbooks form our tastes, and our tastes influence our work.

There’s not as big of a difference between collecting and creating as you might think. A lot of the writers I know see the act of reading and the act of writing as existing on opposite ends of the same spectrum: The reading feeds the writing, which feeds the reading. “I’m basically a curator,” says the writer and former bookseller Jonathan Lethem. “Making books has always felt very connected to my bookselling experience, that of wanting to draw people’s attention to things that I liked, to shape things that I liked into new shapes.”

Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do — sometimes even more than your own work.

One of Kleon’s most urgent points, by virtue of being the least understood and least applied in our day-to-day lives online, has to do with our integrity around acknowledging this interplay of curating and creating by giving credit to others whenever we share their work. Kleon captures this contemporary conundrum beautifully:

If you share the work of others, it’s your duty to make sure that the creators of that work get proper credit. Crediting work in our copy-and-paste age of reblogs and retweets can seem like a futile effort, but it’s worth it, and it’s the right thing to do. You should always share the work of others as if it were your own, treating it with respect and care. When we make the case for crediting our sources, most of us concentrate on the plight of the original creator of the work. But that’s only half of the story — if you fail to properly attribute work that you share, you not only rob the person who made it, you rob all the people you’ve shared it with. Without attribution, they have no way to dig deeper into the work or find more of it.

[…]

Online, the most important form of attribution is a hyperlink pointing back to the website of the creator of the work. This sends people who come across the work back to the original source. The number one rule of the Internet: People are lazy. If you don’t include a link, no one can click it. Attribution without a link online borders on useless: 99.9 percent of people are not going to bother Googling someone’s name.

And here comes the money quote, which I couldn’t second more zealously and which I wish could be sticky-noted onto ever computer screen in the world — a neglected but essential form of modern media hygiene:

What if you want to share something and you don’t know where it came from or who made it? The answer: Don’t share things you can’t properly credit. Find the right credit, or don’t share.

The rest of Show Your Work! goes on to explore how Vonnegut’s taxonomy of the shapes of stories applies to sharing your art, why giving “freely and abundantly,” in the words of Annie Dillard, is the key to reaping great rewards, how finding your people helps you find yourself, why asking for help without shame is the only way to get it, and more.

If you haven’t already, do treat yourself to Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist and his disarmingly wonderful blackout poetry.

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10 MARCH, 2014

Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Crucial Difference Between Success and Mastery

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The lost art of learning to stand “where we would rather not and expand in ways we never knew we could.”

“You gotta be willing to fail… if you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far,” Steve Jobs cautioned. “There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction,” Oprah counseled new Harvard graduates. In his wonderfully heartening letter of fatherly advice, F. Scott Fitzgerald gave his young daughter Scottie a list of things to worry and not worry about in life; among the unworriables, he listed failure, “unless it comes through your own fault.” And yet, as Debbie Millman observed in Fail Safe, her magnificent illustrated-essay-turned-commencement-address, most of us “like to operate within our abilities” — stepping outside of them risks failure, and we do worry about it, very much. How, then, can we transcend that mental block, that existential worry, that keeps us from the very capacity for creative crash that keeps us growing and innovating?

That’s precisely what curator and art advocate Sarah Lewis, who has under her belt degrees from Harvard and Oxford, curatorial positions at the Tate Modern and the MoMA, and an appointment on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, examines in The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (public library) — an exploration of how “discoveries, innovations, and creative endeavors often, perhaps even only, come from uncommon ground” and why this “improbable ground of creative endeavor” is an enormous source of advantages on the path to self-actualization and fulfillment, brought to life through a tapestry of tribulations turned triumphs by such diverse modern heroes as legendary polar explorer Captain Scott, dance icon Paul Taylor, and pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass. Lewis, driven by her lifelong “magpie curiosity about how we become,” crafts her argument slowly, meticulously, stepping away from it like a sculptor gaining perspective on her sculpture and examining it through other eyes, other experiences, other particularities, which she weaves together into an intricate tapestry of “magpielike borrowings” filtered through the sieve of her own point of view.

Female archers, lantern slide, c. 1920. (Public domain via Oregon State University Special Collections & Archives.)

Lewis begins with a visit with the women of Columbia University’s varsity archery team, who spend countless hours practicing a sport that requires equal parts impeccable precision of one’s aim and a level of comfort with the uncontrollable — all the environmental interferences, everything that could happen between the time the arrow leaves the bow and the time it lands on the target, having followed its inevitably curved line. From this unusual sport Lewis draws a metaphor for the core of human achievement:

There is little that is vocational about [contemporary] culture anymore, so it is rare to see what doggedness looks like with this level of exactitude… To spend so many hours with a bow and arrow is a kind of marginality combined with a seriousness of purpose rarely seen.

In the archers’ doggedness Lewis finds the central distinction that serves as a backbone of her book — far more important than success (hitting the bull’s-eye) is the attainment of mastery (“knowing it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again”), and in bridging the former with the latter lives the substance of true achievement. (The distinction isn’t unlike what psychologist Carol Dweck found in her pioneering work on the difference between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.) Lewis writes:

Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate — perfectionism — an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Mastery is also not the same as success — an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.

Thomas Edison

This is why, Lewis argues, a centerpiece of mastery is the notion of failure. She cites Edison, who famously said of his countless fruitless attempts to create a feasible lightbulb: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (Another less famous Edison anecdote paints this in even more vivid detail: When one of his inventions failed, Edison locked himself in his lab with five of his men and declared he would not come out until the puzzle was solved; he spent sixty-four hours working continuously with no sleep, until he conquered the challenge, then slept for thirty hours to recover.)

In fact, Lewis points out that embedded in the very word “failure” — a word originally synonymous with bankruptcy, devised to assess creditworthiness in the 19th century, “a seeming dead end forced to fit human worth” — is the bias of our limited understanding of its value:

The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else — a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention — no longer the static concept of failure.

In its stead, Lewis offers another 19th-century alternative: “blankness,” which beautifully captures the wide-open field of possibility for renewal, for starting from scratch, after an unsuccessful attempt. Still, she considers the challenge of pinning down into plain language a concept so complex and fluid — even fashionable concepts like grit fail failure:

Trying to find a precise word to describe the dynamic is fleeting, like attempting to locate francium, an alkali metal measured but never isolated in any weighted quantity or seen in a way that the eye can detect — one of the most unstable, enigmatic elements on the Earth. No one knows what it looks like in an appreciable form, but there it is, scattered throughout ores in the Earth’s crust. Many of us have a similar sense that these implausible rises must be possible, but the stories tend to stay strewn throughout our lives, never coalescing into a single dynamic concept… The phenomenon remains hidden, and little discussed. Partial ideas do exist — resilience, reinvention, and grit — but there’s no one word to describe the passing yet vital, constant truth that just when it looks like winter, it is spring.

[…]

When we don’t have a word for an inherently fleeting idea, we speak about it differently, if at all. There are all sorts of generative circumstances — flops, folds, wipeouts, and hiccups — yet the dynamism it inspires is internal, personal, and often invisible… It is a cliché to say simply that we learn the most from failure. It is also not exactly true. Transformation comes from how we choose to speak about it in the context of story, whether self-stated or aloud.

One essential element of understanding the value of failure is the notion of the “deliberate incomplete.” (Cue in Marie Curie, who famously noted in a letter to her brother: “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”) Lewis writes:

We thrive, in part, when we have purpose, when we still have more to do. The deliberate incomplete has long been a central part of creation myths themselves. In Navajo culture, some craftsmen and women sought imperfection, giving their textiles and ceramics an intended flaw called a “spirit line” so that there is a forward thrust, a reason to continue making work. Nearly a quarter of twentieth century Navajo rugs have these contrasting-color threads that run out from the inner pattern to just beyond the border that contains it; Navajo baskets and often pottery have an equivalent line called a “heart line” or a “spirit break.” The undone pattern is meant to give the weaver’s spirit a way out, to prevent it from getting trapped and reaching what we sense is an unnatural end.

There is an inevitable incompletion that comes with mastery. It occurs because the greater our proficiency, the more smooth our current path, the more clearly we may spot the mountain that hovers in our gaze. “What would you say increases with knowledge?” Jordan Elgrably once asked James Baldwin. “You learn how little you know,” Baldwin said.

A related concept is that of the “near win” — those moments when we come so close to our aim, yet miss it by a hair:

At the point of mastery, when there seems nothing left to move beyond, we find a way to move beyond ourselves. Success motivates. Yet the near win — the constant auto-correct of a curved-line path — can propel us in an ongoing quest. We see it whenever we aim, climb, or create with mastery as our aim, when the outcome is determined by what happens at the margins.

Here, again, it’s useful to consider Carol Dweck’s influential work on mindsets, in which she found that students who equated success with a reflection of their natural ability learned much less than those who saw it as a product of their effort; the former group dreaded failure as a tell-tale sign of their insufficiency, while the latter saw in it an invitation to change course, to try harder, to grow.

But while a “near win” may be an invitation to grow, it is anything but comfortable. One of the most easily discernible manifestations of its anguish is found among Olympic medalists. Lewis cites the work of Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich, who found that silver medalists were far more frustrated with having lost than bronze medalists. It is a phenomenon first discovered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who in the 1980s found that people were far more frustrated about missing a flight by five minutes than by thirty. And yet the “near win” is also the reason why silver medalists are more likely to win the gold next time around — victory seems possible, yet not as far away as for the bronze medalists, so the “near win” is experienced as a nudge to sharpen focus and try harder rather than a discouragement. Lewis writes:

A near win shifts our view of the landscape. It can turn future goals, which we tend to envision at a distance, into more proximate events. We consider temporal distance as we do spatial distance. (Visualize a great day tomorrow and we see it with granular, practical clarity. But picture what a great day in the future might be like, not tomorrow but fifty years from now, and the image will be hazier.) The near win changes our focus to consider how we plan to attain what lies in our sights, but out of reach.

[…]

Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn’t one. On utterly smooth ground, the path from aim to attainment is in the permanent future.

Herbert Ponting, 'Grotto in an iceberg,' Antarctica, 1911. (Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.)

For one of her illustrative case studies, Lewis turns to the legacy of pioneering polar explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott, whose 1911 expedition to the South Pole is considered by many the greatest unfinished journey of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and “the world’s most tragically famous failure” — Scott and his entire crew perished before reaching the end of their quest. A century later, modern-day polar explorer Ben Saunders set out to complete Scott’s journey, which would be the longest unsupported polar expedition in human history — 1,800 miles or, as Lewis puts it, “the length of sixty-nine marathons back to back.” She considers what might possess people like Saunders to attempt such seemingly deadly feats:

People driven by a pursuit that puts them on the edges are often not on the periphery, but on the frontier, testing the limits of what it is possible to withstand and discover.

Implicit to testing the limits, however, is acknowledging them — and, more importantly, surrendering to them in a way that gives us more freedom. This notion of surrender — which Alan Watts expounded as he pioneered Eastern philosophy in the West half a century ago — is central to Lewis’s model of fruitful failure. She turns, once more, to Saunders:

Out in the Arctic, he said, “I was aware that I was responsible for my own survival,” but eventually settled into a “wonderful feeling of ‘Well, I can’t think of a better word than surrender,’” as he described the process of nonresistance to wind, temperatures, and the pain that had brought him there.

[…]

I wondered for two years after first speaking to Saunders about this idea of surrender. How do you lean into pain when you’re trying to forge ahead in one of the most inhospitable places on our planet? Why is that helpful? … Surrender, we both admitted, might be an imperfect word to describe it. The term is often synonymous with the white-flag retreat of loss in the context of battle. Yet when feelings of failure come with their own form of pain, empowerment through accepting it — surrender — and pivoting out of it can be more powerful than fighting. The kind of surrender that Saunders means is more akin to Nietzsche’s idea of amor fati, to love your fate. “The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”

Once again, Lewis provides an alternative to a culturally misunderstood word for an important concept. To explain the essence of this kind of surrender, she turns to the martial art of aikido, which derives its power from “strategic nonresistance.” (If you’ve ever engaged with Eastern philosophy or listened to the teachings of Tara Brach, you might be familiar with the oft-cited aphorism “What you resist persists.”) Far from easeful resignation, this concept makes aikido one of the most challenging martial arts to master, precisely because “strategic nonresistance” is the exact opposite of what eons of evolution have optimized our minds and bodies to do — to tense up, snap into fight-or-flight mode, and enlist all of our willful resistance in the basic survival instinct of self-protection. And yet the central principle of aikido, which brings to mind Bruce Lee’s famous advice to “be like water” (though he practiced a different martial art), is a philosophical one rather than a physical one. Lewis explains:

Aikido embodies the idea that when we stop resisting something, we stop giving it power. In aikido, an uke, the person who receives an attack from the thrower, or nage, absorbs and transforms the incoming energy through harmony and blending. There is no word for competitor, only for the one who is giving or receiving the energy.

She relates this concept of surrender to our relationship with death:

When we surrender to the fact of death, not the idea of it, we gain license to live more fully, to see life differently.

(Once again, Alan Watts’s influential ideas on the subject would have been an excellent reference here. John Updike also contemplated the question: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” Artist Candy Chang puts it even more succinctly: “Thinking about death clarifies your life.”)

But there’s a concept that illuminates surrender even more brilliantly than death. Lewis points to zero:

Zero is the oddest number. Its value is foundational and yet unstable; it has what seems to be inexplicable properties. It can threaten some — multiply or divide a number by zero and you wipe it out. Or it can act neutrally — add or subtract zero from any number and it remains. For centuries, it has been a limit that most civilizations have preferred not to consider, with the exception of Hindu societies, which embraced it. It is on the threshold, separating positive from negative, all that we want from all that we don’t. Surrender, like zero, doesn’t translate into an appreciable form. It is like the duende of the artist, living on the line in between worlds where intellect, intuition, and force meet, and unendurable beauty is born of enduring travails.

For all of our attempts to describe surrender, discerning its place in our lives feels like trying to engage with that elusive number without which nothing makes sense, and through which all that we thought we knew falls down slack like a rag doll in our lap. And this is the trouble with the rebounding effect of zero: we have to first let ourselves get extremely low to go there.

More than anything, however, the case for surrender stands in stark contrast with the conditioning of our age, an era of endless distractions from discomfort. And yet the very “moronic inferno” Saul Bellow lamented is what makes this capacity for surrender an increasingly valuable psychological commodity. Lewis writes:

In an age where we can skip from idea to idea, with countless distractions to divert us, absconding from painful places is easy. How do we stand in a place where we would rather not and expand in ways we never knew we could? How do we practice the aikido move of surrender? The perception of failure, the acceptance of the low, is often the adhesive.

Frederick Douglass

In another of her illustrative examples, Lewis turns to legendary social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass, who believed in the power of visual culture a century before Susan Sontag made the cultural case for photography and a century and a half before the age of selfies. Long before science would illuminate the visual bias of our brains, Douglass intuited the power of images:

Frederick Douglass was sure, even in the face of war, that the transportive, emancipatory force of “pictures,” and the expanded, imaginative visions they inspire, was the way to move toward what seemed impossible. An encounter with pictures that moves us, those in the world and the ones it creates in the mind, has a double-barreled power to convey humanity as it is, and, through the power of the imagination, to ignite an inner vision of life as it could be. The inward “picture making faculty,” Douglass argued, the human capacity for artful, imaginative thought, is what permits us to see the chasm accurately, our failures — the “picture of life contrasted with the fact of life.” “All that is really peculiar to humanity . . . proceeds from this one faculty or power.” This distinction of “the ideal contrasted with the real” is what made “criticism possible,” that is, it enabled the criticism of slavery, inequity, and injustice of any kind.

It helps us deal with the opposite of failure, which may not be success—that momentary label affixed to us by others — but reconciliation, aligning our past with an expanded vision that has just come into view.

[…]

The “key to the great mystery of life and progress” was the ability of men and women to fashion a mental or material picture and let his or her entire world, sentiments, and vision of every other living thing be affected by it. Even the most humble image held in the hand or in the mind was never silent. Like the tones of music, it could speak to the heart in a way that words could not. All of the “Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, Photographs and Electrotypes, good and bad, [that] now adorn or disfigure all our dwellings,” Douglass said, could allow for progress through the mental pictures that they conjured. He went on to describe “the whole soul of man,” when “rightly viewed,” as “a sort of picture gallery[,] a grand panorama,” contrasting the sweep of life with the potential for progress in every moment.

What Douglass intuited, Lewis argues, is the notion of “aesthetic force” — that transcendent power of a Rothko painting or the “overview effect” of cosmic awe that astronauts experience when gazing at Earth from space or the transcendence of a life-changing encounter with wild ospreys, those visceral experiences that leave us somehow transformed. Lewis writes:

Our reaction to aesthetic force, more easily than logic, is often how we accept with grace that the ground has shifted beneath our feet.

Earthrise, December 24, 1968

So powerful is aesthetic force, Lewis argues, that it can alter our behavior both as individuals and as a culture — the iconic Earthrise photograph has been credited with galvanizing the environmental movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Underpinning aesthetic force is a mechanism similar to that behind the “deliberate incomplete”:

When we’re overcome by aesthetic force, a propulsion comes from the sense that, until that moment, we have been somehow incomplete. It can make us realize that our views and judgments need correction. It can give these moments “elasticity” and “plasticity”…

Lewis dons her art historian hat to tie this back to failure:

The mechanics of how we see and remember when we are moved is one way that we move forward out of near ruin. Douglass was describing, as he saw it, our pictorial process of creating reality.

It is as true of vision as it is of justice — distorted, flat, horizontal worlds become more full when we accept that the limit of vision is the way we see unfolding, infinite depth. Painted and printed images used to be just flat bands of color until the invention of perspectival construction and with it, the vanishing point — the void, nothing, the start of infinite possibility. Moving toward a reality that is just, collectively and for each of us individually, comes from a similar engagement with an inbuilt failure. A fuller vision comes from our ability to recognize the fallibility in our current and past forms of sight.

[…]

What we lose if we underestimate the power of an aesthetic act is not solely talent and freedom of expression, but the avenue to see up and out of failures that we didn’t even know we had. Aesthetic force is not merely a reflection of a feeling, luxury, or respite from life. The vision we conjure from the experience can serve as an indispensable way out from intractable paths.

[…]

Seeing the uncommon foundations of a rise is not merely a contrarian way of looking at the world. It has, in many cases, been the only way that we have created the one in which we are honored to live.

Illustration by Matt Kish from 'Moby-Dick in Pictures.' Click image for details.

Indeed, history is strewn with such “uncommon foundations.” There’s Joan Didion, who faced a slew of uncompromising rejections before becoming one of the most celebrated writers of our time, or Herman Melville who Lewis reminds us died a penniless customs agent some seventy years before Moby-Dick would receive critical acclaim as one of the greatest novels of all time. (Melville himself, for all his capacity for the joyful, was all too painfully aware of the tragic in his own life when he lamented, “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”)

Lewis’s point, of course, isn’t to bemoan the occasional cruelties of fate and commiserate with its famous victims but to remind us that we choose how we designate and how we relate to our own experience, and out of that choice, especially amidst tribulation, springs our capacity for triumph:

The moment we designate the used or maligned as a state with generative capacity, our reality expands. President John F. Kennedy once mentioned an old saying that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Failure is an orphan until we give it a narrative. Then it is palatable because it comes in the context of story, as stars within a beloved constellation.

Once we reach a certain height we see how a rise often starts on a seemingly outworn foundation. . . .

When we take the long view, we value the arc of a rise not because of what we have achieved at that height, but because of what it tells us about our capacity, due to how improbable, indefinable, and imperceptible the rise remains.

The Rise is a dimensional read in its entirety — highly recommended. Complement it with Daniel Dennett on how to make good mistakes and Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, then revisit Debbie Millman’s Fail Safe.

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28 FEBRUARY, 2014

Advice from Artists on How to Overcome Creative Block, Handle Criticism, and Nurture Your Sense of Self-Worth

By:

Mastering the balance of restriction and imaginative play, or why unbridling your self-worth from your professional success is essential for happiness.

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” Chuck Close scoffed. “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky admonished. “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Isabel Allende urged. But true as this general sentiment may be, it isn’t always an easy or a livable truth — most creative people do get stuck every once in a while, or at the very least hit the OK plateau. What then?

Not too long ago, Alex Cornell rallied some of our time’s most celebrated artists, writers, and designers, and asked them to share their strategies for overcoming creative block. Now comes Creative Block: Advice and Projects from 50 Successful Artists (public library) — a lavishly illustrated compendium at once very similar in spirit and sufficiently different in execution, in which Danielle Krysa, better-known as The Jealous Curator, asks artists from around the world working in various media to crack open the vault of their unconscious and explore the darkest elements of the creative process, from overcoming idea-stagnation to dealing with both self-criticism and external naysayers. In addition to sharing their broader thoughts on the demons and rewards of creativity, each artist also offers one specific block-busing exercise — a “Creative Unblock Project” — to try the next time you feel stuck.

But what makes the project particularly noteworthy is that while it features reflections from visual artists, most of their insights apply just as usefully to other creative endeavors, from writing and to entrepreneurship to, even, science.

Trey Speegle

One of the recurring themes in dealing with creative block, which a number of the artists articulate, has to do with mastering the right balance between freedom and constraint. Mixed-media artist Trey Speegle puts it perfectly:

You have to set up the narrow parameters that you work in, and then within those, give yourself just enough room to be free and play.

Aris Moore

Multidisciplinary artist Aris Moore observes:

When I am stuck … I just search for excitement, but not too hard. It is when I find myself playing more than trying that I find my way out of a block.

Lisa Golightly

Painter Lisa Golightly adds:

I give myself permission to just make for the sake of making without any thought to the outcome, which can be surprisingly hard. … What I would tell my younger self is this: There is no “right” way to make art. The only wrong is in not trying, not doing. Don’t put barriers up that aren’t there — just get to work and make something.

Lisa Congdon

The wonderful Lisa Congdon — with whom I’ve collaborated for some time — offers a “Creative Unblock Project” to explore that interplay between structure and imaginative play:

Choose one thing you love to draw or paint (and feel comfortable drawing or painting) already: an animal, object, a person, whatever. For thirty days, draw or paint that thing thirty different ways, a different way every day. You can use different mediums, expressions, positions, colors, whatever. Each day, push yourself to do something much different than the day before, but keep the subject the same. See how keeping one element constant (in this case, the “thing” you love to draw or paint) can allow you to break out creatively in other ways.

Ben Skinner

Many artists also emphasize the importance of stepping away from the work when feeling stuck — a strategy that makes sense, given how crucial the unconscious processing stage of the creative process is. Multidisciplinary artist Ben Skinner captures this:

I know that forcing something is not going to create anything beyond mediocre, so I step aside and work on a different project until it hits me.

Ashley Goldberg

And then there’s the Buddhist-like approach of just letting the block happen rather than resisting it feverishly or grasping after an immediate resolution. Illustrator Ashley Goldberg reflects:

If it is a bigger creative block, I try to ride it out and just let it happen. I will still draw, but most pieces will end up in the trash, and that’s OK. I think some of the biggest bursts of creativity and artistic growth I’ve had are usually preceded by a big creative block.

When asked to contrast the state of creative block with its opposite, most artists describe some version of what psychologists call “flow”. Collage and mixed media artist Anthony Zinonos describes that optimal state:

I have total clarity and nothing but great ideas bubble up in my head. It’s like being on a creative high; you’re on top the world and work seems to be just pouring out of you.

Mary Kate McDevitt

Hand-lettering artist Mary Kate McDevitt shares a similar experience:

I could be working without headphones, with someone right next to me trying to get my attention, and I am completely oblivious to anything but the task at hand… One minute it’s 8 p.m., the next minute I’ve finished my project and it’s 3 a.m. That’s pretty magical.

Ashley Percival

Illustrator Ashley Percival echoes:

I don’t want the day to end, because I need to be creative forever! Sometimes I forget to eat, then I realize that I must move from my desk—so I make breakfast at two in the afternoon.

Sydney Pink

And yet this state of “flow” isn’t the same thing as the mythic divine inspiration. Illustrator Sydney Pink captures this perfectly:

The idea of divine inspiration and an aha moment is largely a fantasy. Anything of value comes from hard work and unwavering dedication. If you want to be a good artist you need to look at other artists, make a lot of crappy art, and just keep working.

But the most powerful part deals with the darkest underbelly of the creative life — criticism. Some artists, like painter Amanda Happé, turn a deaf ear to naysayers and focus on satisfying their own soul instead:

It’s one of the most beautiful things about doing this — you don’t have to care. No one gets to have their say and have it stick. No one can wrestle the pencil out of your hand. You get to keep going in absolute defiance.

Ashley Percival puts it even more simply:

You can’t please everyone — people will have art that they like and dislike — the main thing is that you as an artist are happy with your work.

Ceramics artist Mel Robson offers one of the wisest meditations on the subject:

I think it’s important to remember that making art is a process. It is never finished. The occupation itself is one of process, exploration, and experimentation. It is one of questioning and examining. Each thing you make is part of a continuum, and you are always developing. You don’t always get it right, but I find that approaching everything as a work in progress allows you to take the good with the bad. You’re never going to please everyone. Take what you can from criticism, and let go of the rest. When it comes to constructive criticism, I welcome that and think it is important to have people you can discuss your work with who will give you honest and constructive feedback. It’s not always what you want to hear, but that is often exactly what is needed. It can be very confronting, but very useful.

Hollie Chastain

This brings us to the most poignant question: How to unbridle one’s work, whether lauded or criticized, from one’s sense of self-worth. Collage and mixed-media artist Hollie Chastain reflects:

I think as an artist it’s very easy to [equate self-worth with artistic success] because of the nature of the work. If you think of art as a job, then your product is so much more than hours invested. The product is a piece of yourself, so of course if the reception is not the greatest, then it can feel like a direct hit to who you are as a person. I think this happened a lot more when I was younger and still finding my way around. I would doubt my direction when a viewer wasn’t thrilled. The trick for me is not to put more distance between my work and myself, but to close that gap completely. I can see myself in the art that I create, and that builds a wall of confidence.

Julia Rothman

Illustrator Julia Rothman — who gave us the immeasurably wonderful The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science and Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists — strips this sentiment down to its bare, most vulnerable essence:

When you put so much of yourself and your time into something, it’s hard to separate it from who you are.

Emily Barletta

Embroidery and fiber artist Emily Barletta reminds us that soul-satisfaction requires defining our own success:

I make art because the process of making art makes me happy. Being successful with it and doing it for personal fulfillment are separate ideas.

Creative Block. Complement with Brian Eno’s prompts for overcoming creative block, then revisit Bukowski’s bold poetic debunking of the ideal conditions and myths of creativity.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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